Saturday, 21 February 2015

A Crocheting Update

Way back in the mists of time (2013 actually), I learned to crochet and started to make a cushion cover. I never ever did an update on how I got on, mainly because the whole thing fell by the wayside and was forgotten about.

But in December, I found my crochet mojo again, thanks to my promise to make something Christmassy, plus Elise handily providing a link to a cool and easy pattern. So here it is, half hanging from my bedroom door, and half held up by me:

I didn't finish it until New Year, when I then hung it up above the living room window. I was tempted to leave it up all year but then I decided that spoiled the fun of it being a Christmas decoration, so its now tucked away until the end of the year. I couldn't quite get the snowflakes right, but otherwise I'm happy with it.

The banner was easy and fun to make, and spurned me to get my cushion cover back on the go. Part of the reason I had abandoned it was because the squares were done and now I needed to sew them together. Finishing is my least part of any project though, and I always stall. But I persevered. And here it is:

I love it. I love Granny squares anyway, plus they're so easy and they give instant gratification. In my wisdom, I decided to attempt a giant square for the other side of the cushion. This is not as much fun to make but I'm rejoicing that I won't have a shitload of squares to put together. The aim is to finish it this year (which is a modest aim for me).

I'm not sure I'm that keen on it; I think the gaps are too big, but I'll keep going for now and see how I feel. It would be easy enough to unravel it and start again (this is already the second attempt).

And while we're on the subject of Granny squares, look at this awesome blanket I made for my bed. Sorry, I mean look at this awesome blanket I bought in a charity shop for my bed. It's made up of a load of HUGE Granny squares (I've had it a year but only realised the other day that it's made of symmetrical squares). A lot of work has gone into it and it's damn warm for these cold north winters.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A list of quick and easy random stuff to do for Lent

Don't panic, I haven't come over all religious. I've never given anything up for Lent before but it seems that these days, the practice is being adopted by many non-religious folk, I guess in the same way that Christmas and Easter have been. I know a few people who've given stuff up in previous years, and I like the idea of it although I never remember to do it.

I guess giving up a vice or starting a new habit can be done at any time of year; what I like about doing it at Lent, is the fact that the days are lengthening and summer is drawing closer - I think that's a great time to make a positive change.

Lent starts tomorrow, and this year I will do something. In my mind, Lent is more about self-awareness and self-discipline, so it needn't necessarily be about giving something up, but it could also be about starting something new. My issue is (yet again) that I've left it late to put a lot of thought into it, but here are some ideas of last minute, easy stuff that anyone can do/not to for the next 40 days - plus Sundays, which don't count apparently.

1. Write every day (you could try Morning Pages)

2. Give something every day (even just a pound in a charity box, or a tin of dog food to a collection for a pet's home)

3. Give up one cup of coffee/one cigarette/one whatever, as a means of cutting back

4. Do something fun with someone special, like Vicky's doing (could be with a child, a pet, a significant other, a friend)

5. Don't wear jeans (sounds easy, but my friend tried this a few years ago and it is hard. The point being? It got her to think more about what she wears and be more adventurous in her outfits)

6. Meditate for 5 minutes every day

7. Drive in silence (if you drive alone - no CD or radio, and see if you become more aware of your surroundings)

8. No TV after 8pm, or none at all if you're up for it

9. Take the stairs instead of the lift

10. Start a new hobby and do it every day (like learn a language, or play an instrument)

11. No swearing (I could not do this)

12. No gossiping (even just being aware of when you do it, and cutting down, helps)

13. No moaning (see above)

14. Get up an hour earlier every morning (yes, even at weekends)

15. Wear something green every day (or whatever colour. Get creative - it can be clothes, make up, jewellery, accessory etc)

15. Try something new every day (take a different route to work, try a hot drink/juice you've never tried, read a book/magazine you'd never normally read)

16. Take a photograph every day

I'm not sure which one I'll go with but I have 24 hours to decide. I'm thinking either 10 or 13. Or maybe both....

Anyone else giving/starting something up for Lent?

Monday, 16 February 2015

How to make Public Speaking less scary

image source
I was having a recent conversation with two colleagues about things that scare us. Now, there are many things that scare me, but one thing which scares both of them - but doesn't phase me - is public speaking. That's not to say I'm good at it, but I can do it with minimal fear. Being in a group of, say, 5 to 10 people is a different story; my introverted tendencies just cannot deal with group settings At All. But being the only person speaking to a very large group, is fine. The largest groups I've spoken to are 70 adults on one occasion, and 140 school pupils on another, but I'm confident I could address 500 and not sweat too much about it. 

Not that I enjoy being centre of attention per se though - I always vowed I would never have a wedding because the mere thought of being a bride for the day makes me want to crawl under my desk and hide. But for some reason, public speaking is something I've taken to. However, 75% of Americans fear public speaking, and I'd imagine this is mirrored in the UK. In some cases its a genuine full-blown phobia relating to anxiety, in which case hypnotherapy or NLP might help, but if its more just a case of the nerves, here's what's worked for me.

1. Accept the fear
I don't have no fear at all of public speaking. Fear is a natural response, so don't fight it. Acknowledge your fear first, then look at how to manage it.

2. Drag those fears into the light
Write them down so that you can find solutions to them. Some of my fears and solutions - dry mouth (I always take water with me); forgetting what each Powerpoint slide is about (prepare prompt cards); fear that it's too technical or too boring (run it past a friend/colleague first); equipment not working (set it up and check it the day before). You can't do this for every fear, but if you can manage those that you can manage, it takes a burden off. Plus, you live and learn, as they say, and new fears will develop over time. I now always check my equipment beforehand, but I learned that lesson the hard way (see below).

3. Be prepared and organised
Know your subject. As stated in point 2, have a practice run through, more than once if possible - this is useful as it shows where your stumbling blocks are, and you can keep practicing until you overcome them. Also, look for gaps where questions can crop up, as you want to be prepared for them. This is where running over it with someone who knows nothing about your subject can be helpful.

As for being organised, have notes and prompts to hand. And bring your own equipment if possible, if you're giving a presentation. I usually always bring laptop, screen, projector and extension cable regardless of whether I've been told that the venue has equipment, as I've been caught short before. And make sure it works too, and that you know how to work it! I've been caught out by a dodgy projector and a misbehaving laptop.

4. Connect with your audience
Try and speak to a couple of people beforehand. I always speak to the organiser, and a couple of others if I can. It's just a way of reminding yourself that you're dealing with individual human beings, and not a mob who are out to judge and condemn you.

When talking, look at the audience - not giving eye contact or looking at anyone in particular, but looking over the group as a whole. Introcude yourself at the start - I make a few personal, jokey comments as  ice breakers, as well as what my aim of the presentation is. For example, I nearly always say something like, 'My mother tells me I talk too fast so please feel free to shout if I'm talking too fast for you', or 'I may know a bit about recycling but I know very little about technology, so if the projector or laptop plays up, I'm admonishing all responsibility before I start.' This usually gets a chuckle from the audience, which takes away some of the tension.

5. Accept that it won't be perfect
It won't. As I said, I've had equipment problems before. I've also forgotten what to say and stumbled over sections. It happens. Yes, it can be embarrassing, but deal with embarrassment by using humour. You could gloss over the mistakes but I prefer to acknowledge them, say something like 'oops, I tripped over my words there' or 'I'm having a bit of a memory blank here. Never mind, we'll move swiftly on....' Don't get caught up in your mistakes; just move on and let it go. Once you've had one embarrassing moment, you realise that it isn't the end of the world, and you can handle it.

6. Keep your cool
Its not always fun and games; I've spoken to tough, hostile groups who haven't liked what I have to say, and were fired up for an argument. Firstly, don't take it personally. Their grievance is with what you're saying, not with you. Secondly, keep your cool and don't enter into an argument. Let them make their point, then gently reinforce yours. You won't win all battles but at least you've tried. I find that acknowledging their point of view helps; tell them that you can accept why they feel like that, and that it must be upsetting/frustrating/whatever, however, this is how things are....

7. Write down the positives
I don't do this now but I did this a lot at the start. Our minds dwell on negative moments, so you may forget that actually, it was fine. Write down what went well - the audience laughed at your joke, you handled the grumpy woman's question well, you felt confident presenting that bit at the end, you remembered the facts and figures you were worried about forgetting - and eventually you'll grow more confident as you realise that you can do this. It will get easier but this helps.

How do you find public speaking? Do you enjoy it or is it something you struggle with? Do you have any more tips to add?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Changing of the Seasons

Every so often, I lose my thread in life. Apathy and lethargy take over and every day feels like wading through treacle. I struggle to sleep at night, and get out of bed in the morning. Writing, blogging, anything that takes any kind of effort, falls to the wayside. My thoughts are muddled, fuzzy, and I feel overwhelmed and struggle to think straight. I can do the basics - look after myself, go to work and do what I have to, cook and keep the house relatively clean. But everything feels like a struggle, until I can shake off this mental, physical, creative and even spiritual, fatigue.

I'm coming through a phase of this just now. It usually lasts a week to ten days, I think this time its been about a week. I've been late for work both days this week (which is OK as I have time to use up), plus I was late at the end of last week and had long lies at the weekends. I've hardly written a word, and I've had this constant feeling of overwhelm. I've often wondered what causes this and I've kept meaning to keep a record. It's too rare to be anything to do with my monthly cycle (which gets the blame for a lot of other sins), but I had another theory which was a bit new age-y but not impossible. I'm now close to thinking that my theory is right.

Something good thing I've discovered about my morning pages, is that I can look back and see what I was thinking on a particular day last year. I've done just that every day this year. And from the 4th until 10th February 2014, I was feeling exactly - I mean exactly - the same as I've felt this year.

Today is the first day this year that's really felt like spring. The starlings and sparrows at work seemed livelier than normal, the weather was mild and the sun was shining, yellow crocuses had appeared in the garden. I  still struggled to get out of bed but compared to yesterday, I had a lot of energy throughout the day and right now, I feel like I can see and think clearly, I feel ready for action.

At risk of sounding a bit airy-fairy, I wonder if this lethargy is connected to the change in season. I'm not the only person in my life complaining of unusual tiredness just now, and I'm a firm believer that nature influences us more than we realise. It'll be interesting, over the course of the year, to see if my other tired phases occur as one season changes to another. I wonder if its a form of transition; some sort of downtime as we prepare to face the next season with renewed vigor and a fresh mindset.

Either way, I'm ready for spring. 

Does this happen to you? Have you been in a bit of a slump lately? 

(EDIT - googled this after posting and it does appear to be A Thing...)

Monday, 2 February 2015

12 things I learned from doing Morning Pages every day for a year

I've mentioned Morning Pages on the blog before - Julia Cameron recommends them in The Artist's Way  and it basically involves writing 3 pages first thing every morning. Three pages about anything. Stream of consciousness, fiction, non-fiction, journalling, random words, the dream you had last night, the weather, whatever. Just three pages, preferably written not typed.

I've done this on and off for about 5 years but last year I made the commitment to do them every single day in 2014. And I did. I used to do them at sporadic times of day, but last year I slotted them in at 6am so they were usually the first thing I did. Some days they weren't. I sometimes have long lies, 5am starts or I run late, but they were done, and that's the main thing.

Julia suggests A4 pads; I use A5 because I'm fussy about the pads I write in, and these Paperchase ones are my favourite. So far this year, I've done them every day too, as they've now become habit. And here's what I've learned from doing them daily for a year...
1.  A set time helps
Doing them at the same time more or less every day is what made them a habit. Or indeed, doing them as soon as I got out of bed, be it at 6am or 10am. Now, it feels wrong if I don't do them.

2. Perseverance is handy
It didn't come easy to start with. I'd say it took me about 4 months before I got to the stage where I didn't have to remind or force myself to do them.

3. I know when I don't do them
As is the case with meditation, if I don't do these pages in the morning, I feel it for the rest of the day. It bugs me until I do them, and I feel my thoughts aren't as clear. I need to do them before I attempt any other sort of writing.

4. First thing in the morning is a good time to freewrite
Despite what Julia says, this will not be the optimum time for everyone, but its the optimum time for me. I like the fact that my head hasn't been polluted with any of the day's work or drama. I can just get on and write whatever's swirling around in there, and clear my head out ready for the rest of the day.

5. They help me work out my thoughts and solve problems
Often, just writing my plans for the day helps me get my head straight. Or writing down different thoughts that are in my head about whatever's bugging me. I've found solutions to personal problems, ways of dealing with feelings, answers to decisions, solutions to 'stuck' stories. The channels of communication to my subconscious are at their clearest first thing in the morning, and answers will come. I may need to write about them over a few mornings, but I have faith they will come. They always do.

6. They make other writing easier
They act as a brain dump, so I get my worries, frustrations and blocks on paper and out of my head. This helps the rest of my writing flow.

7. Bad writing is better than no writing
Initially I would stress because I'd written pages of drivel, but then I realised that this is kind of the point. Some days the words are profound or useful. Mostly, the words are not. It's the process, not the outcome that matters here.

8. Use a decent pen
I've tried using fancy multi-coloured ink things in an effort to be all artistic and stuff. I've also tried using any old scabby ballpoint I can find. Neither is good because I need to write fast and I need to not care about how it looks. I try to always use pens I enjoy writing with. To me its plain ole Papermate Flexigrip.

9. Make a note of any good ideas that come out
Sometimes I'll come across a solution to a problem, either in real life or in something I'm writing, or I'll come up with a great idea for a story. I underline these as I write so that I can find them. I've learned the hard way that reading through pages and pages to find that one paragraph I've written about how to end that tricky short story, is not fun.

10. They don't always come easy
If I don't do them first thing, I struggle when I do finally do them. I start loads of sentences with 'I have no idea what to write now'. Sometimes when I do write them first thing, I struggle anyway. But even writing 'I don't know what to write' is better than nothing. Writers Block occurs when you don't write, not because you don't know what to write. So keep writing!

11. They make you a better writer
I absolutely swear by this. For me its a combination of things - the discipline, the idea generation, the getting-all the-crap-out-of-your-head thing. Last year I wrote more short stories, and better short stories than I ever had before. These pages helped.

12. Sometimes they're just a moan
Often I just write 3 pages about whatever or whoever is pissing me off. I may feel quite negative as I write them but I feel happier once they're written. Getting all that negative stuff out of my head and onto the page leaves me feeling calmer and more positive for the day ahead.

Have your read The Artist's Way or tried morning pages? Did they help you?

Saturday, 31 January 2015

This was January 2015

January was about:
Signs of spring
Vanilla chai tea
Vehicle repairs
Peats on the fire
New printer
Making cocktails with my sister
A return to healthy eating
Weird mushooms
Jigsaws taking over the living room floor
Planning the next 11 months

Short stories written: 6
Short stories submitted (comps): 3
Short stories submitted (mags): 3
Competitions won: 0
Runner up: 0
Shortlisted: 1
Acceptances: 0
Returns: 0
How was your January?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

January Reading

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
I’m possibly the last person in the world to read this book, but it kind of fell to the back of my Kindle and I forgot about it until recently. It’s billed as a family tale with a twist so it sounded like my sort of story.

The narrator is Rosemary, a student who has had a somewhat unconventional home life and who is trying to come to terms with the separate disappearances of her brother and sister. The story focuses primarily on her relationship with her sister, Fern, as Rosemary tries to untangle just what happened to Fern.

The twist occurs quarter-way through and really did throw me. It made for an interesting read, although I didn’t warm to Rosemary. I did warm to Fern, despite her faults and the fact she only appeared in backstory, and I desperately wanted to know what had happened to her. The scene when Rosemary recalls an incident between her and Fern down by the river, brought tears to my eyes – the sheer naivety and cruelty of them both (plus the fact I’m an animal lover!) was really quite heart breaking. A good read – once I got into it, I really wanted to know where Fern had gone, and whether she was alright. (If you haven’t read this already, avoid spoilers. The twist really is bizarre).

Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins - Grace Maxwell
In late 2014, I was pretty much devouring books - fiction or fact - about brain trauma and injury. My boss lent me this one, which I hadn't even heard of before. It's written by Edwyn Collin's partner and chronicles his recovery from two hemorrhagic strokes.

I don't think you need to be a fan of Edwyn's music to appreciate the book, nor do you need to have had experience of anything similar. If you have experience of time in an NHS hospital, a lot of this will sound familiar - Adam didn't read it but I read a few bits aloud to him because they were so similar to our own experiences. I would say though, that if we hadn't been through it, I may have thought that some events were exaggerated, but I can honestly say I believe they're all true.

It's funny in places, desperately moving in others. You know from the offset that Edwyn will recover but there are moments where it seems so unlikely that its hard to believe. It was also a stark reminder of how lucky Adam actually is. I mean seriously. We've had dark moments, but on the whole we've got off lightly. I don't know where Grace found the strength, and I could identify so closely with her that I was quite upset at some parts.

As a bonus, I did enjoy reading about the 80s and early 90's music scenes at the start of the book, and I loved the fact that Caithness is mentioned on a couple of occasions (our humble county doesn't appear in literature often - but Edwyn's grandparents lived just outside Caithness and he still owns their house as a holiday home). A heartbreaking and gripping book that I struggled to put down.

11:22:63 - Stephen King
There are two bad things about every Stephen King book. (A) They're so wonderful that they make me doubt my abilities as a writer; and (B) my life is put on hold until I finish it. And this was no exception. At 740 pages its not a quick read, but once it gets going its impossible to put down.

Jake Epping is a High School teacher who gets the chance to go back in time and stop the assassination of JFK. It really is an exceptional story in that so much goes on, plus the fact its based on true facts and history which means he must have done a crazy amount of research. Jake is, like most King protagonists, a likeable ordinary guy who gets roped into something that perhaps he really would rather not be involved in, and really tries to do everything right.

The tension builds nicely, and poor Jake comes under increasing pressure to overcome the obturate nature of the past and do what he set out to do. I don't know a huge amount about the JFK assassination so in a sense this was a lesson in history too as it delves into Lee Harvey Oswald's background and why he did what he did. I couldn't imagine how the book would end but it came to what I felt was a satisfactory conclusion.

Not King's best book in my opinion, and I do suspect it could have been cut down a bit without losing the essence of the story; his earlier horror stuff is brilliant, and The Stand is possibly one of my favourite books ever. But still, a good read and very much written in true King style.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly - Sun-Mi Hwang
I needed an antidote after the mighty 11:22:63 so this little ditty at just 134 pages long was perfect, and I read it in an evening. It's a sweet Korean tale about Sprout, a caged hen who can no longer lay eggs and who dreams escaping to the yard and sitting on an egg until it hatches. She's such a kind and plucky little character that I couldn't help but warm to her.

Its hard not to give the plot away as its so short but lets just say that Sprout escapes and learns a lot in the process. That dreams sometimes don't live up to what you'd expect; that freedom can be dangerous; that people can be nasty, especially to folk that are different to them; that there is no greater feeling than love. There's a lot of different creature characters (friendly Straggler the mallard, the cocky rooster, the snooty yard hen, the highly strung guard dog, the evil weasel), all of which add to Sprout's experiences of life on the outside.

There's a lo-fi, dreamy feeling to the text which made it an easy but enjoyable read, and the book is beautifully illustrated. For such a small text it packs in a load of themes - racial tension, friendship, animal husbandry, motherhood, belonging, nature, death. To me though, it was just a lovely fable with a courageous heroine and a sad but somehow hopeful ending. Might be a bit simplistic for some readers but I loved it.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?